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High Society : History: Landmark hotel towers over Sunset Strip--and Hollywood lore. Owners hope new name will revive its glory.

October 02, 1994|MATHIS CHAZANOV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This Sunset Strip landmark is rich in history and rumor. There were residents ranging from Jean Harlow to Tina Turner--and the tale, a tall one it seems, that John Wayne kept a cow on his balcony to ensure he had a fresh supply of milk.

There have also been name changes. In 1988, the building that had been known as Sunset Tower was re-christened the St. James' Club & Hotel. And on Thursday its latest owners, the Lancaster Group, announced that their upscale hotel will be known as The Argyle.

The 63-year-old building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was named the St. James' Club & Hotel after British financier Peter de Savary saved the Art Deco tower from decay and abandonment.

With the latest name change, the building has lost its link to what in the 1980s became its sister institution--the 135-year-old St. James' gentlemen's club in London. This has some local St. James members steamed.

"I will bring no more ladies' lunches here," declared Marilyn D. Watson, a Century City real estate saleswoman who staged monthly gatherings in the building's airy restaurant with its lofty view of the city from a swimming pool terrace.

"I'm scorched, and so are all the other members," she added, venting her ire at a recent cocktail party laid on by the new management in an effort to spread hors d'oeuvres on troubled waters.

The club, where the wine list tops out with a $450 magnum of 1982 Dom Perignon, was a sort of home away from home for its members, a place distinguished, Watson said, by "exclusivity, warmth and the staff calling you by name."

Now it is proving difficult to reserve a table over the phone, she said. But Eileen M. Womer, director of sales for the new management, said there should be no problem.

"They can be patrons as much as they like," she said.

The important thing, some would argue, is that the new plans pose no threat to the building itself. The building is a genuine star of local architecture, featured in movies from "Murder My Sweet" (based on a Raymond Chandler novel) to Robert Altman's "The Player."

"On clear days, Mr. Marlowe, you can see the ships in the harbor at San Pedro," the bad guy tells Chandler's hard-bitten detective hero in the 1943 thriller, showing him the view from his elegantly-furnished living room.

Fans of the edifice are devoted.

"You see it and you're drawn to it, and at night, the way it's lit up, it's breathtaking," said Barbara Hoff, director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy, which worked on saving the building from demolition nine years ago. "They can change the name, just don't tear it down."

Built between 1929 and 1931, the 13-story Sunset Tower was one of the first skyscrapers on the Westside, and its cliff-top location made the luxury apartment-hotel look even taller than it was.

Designed by Leland A. Bryant, who was also responsible for several other stately apartment buildings in West Hollywood, it was adorned with friezes of exotic beasts, a Zeppelin and a submarine.

It was advertised as an ideal home for actors, "Faultless in Appointment--the Ultimate in Privacy," according to a piece in the Screen Actors Guild magazine of February, 1938.

Aside from Harlow, residents during its early years included Errol Flynn, Clark Gable and Zasu Pitts. And in recent years, guests have included not only Turner, but Whoopi Goldberg and dozens of British rockers.

Many stars' photographs adorn the lobby in a collection by George Hurrell (but John Wayne's cow is absent).

Billed as the first all-electric building in Los Angeles, the Sunset Tower went downhill in the 1970s, falling victim to failed condo conversion plans and eventually standing empty for years.

"It was a mess, legally. There were probably 20 to 25 lawsuits against it," recalls architect David Gray, who mortgaged his house to acquire the hulk. "I used to live by there and it was just falling apart and it was just sad, and one day I just made up my mind I was going to fix it."

A mutual acquaintance introduced him to de Savary, who was looking for a West Coast branch to add to his collection of real estate, which included St. James' clubs in Paris and Antigua, as well as the original club in London.

After unraveling the legal knots, Gray sold de Savary the building but stayed on as architect for the $40-million project, adding a parking garage, two townhouses and the restaurant space.

Interior designer David Becker commissioned fancy furnishings for the inside, including gondola-shaped beds and mini-bars that rose at the push of a button from cabinets made of exotic woods.

But within days of its opening in 1988, de Savary had sold the building and two other St. James' Clubs to Norfolk Capital, a British firm whose executives were reportedly dazzled by the sight of Liz Taylor's book party for Roddy McDowall on the night they arrived to inspect the property.

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